My Favorite Literary Proposals

By Friday, August 24, 2018 ,

In many works of fiction, a proposal marks a climactic moment in the story that the audience has been waiting for, so we want it to be exciting and memorable. As I began thinking about good literary proposals, I realized that while wonderful love stories are ever multiplying, really fabulous proposal scenes are fewer. In many of my favorite books, the proposal is simply “understood” through the author’s narration or the characters’ personal reflections in their minds. And among the good proposal scenes I enjoy, the phrase “will you marry me?” or something similar is even more rare! I was honestly surprised to realize these interesting tidbits as I started narrowing down my favorites. So, while there’s no shortage of tried-and-true romance among old classics and newer fiction, I think these five literary proposals are my top favorites. And I know some of the book excerpts are long, but bear with me… they’re just SO good. Also, this probably goes without saying, but I am about to spoil the endings of these books for you :) You've been forewarned.

Persuasion by Jane Austen 

-Captain Frederick Wentworth and Anne Elliot- 

People (myself included) may swoon forevermore over Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, but Captain Wentworth is far more sure of himself in the “ability to romance a woman” category than Darcy. Wentworth and Anne are the older, more seasoned couple out of Austen’s leading pairs, and by the time they get engaged, they’ve learned a few things about heartbreak and second chances. And even though Captain Wentworth proposes by letter, it’ll probably be the most romantic thing you read all day (my own love for handwritten letters also probably has something to do with my feelings about it). He writes it as he listens to Anne discussing with another male friend how men and women approach romance; her words give Captain Wentworth hope and he pours out his heart on the page. Here it is in all its glory. 

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
F. W. 
I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never. 

Now to scoop up the melted puddle of me off the floor. 

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows 

-Dawsey Adams and Juliet Ashton- 

This is the more unconventional favorite on this list since the woman does the proposing, but this was definitely a situation where the man needed a little help. With the prodding of her publisher and friend, Sidney Stark, Juliet finally accepts near the end of the book that she’s madly in love with Dawsey Adams, a poetic pig farmer with a quiet exterior and a big heart. Everything started for them when he found a secondhand book with her address in it and wrote her a letter. Later on, they discover they share a love of books, nature, community, and a little girl named Kit who needs a family. However, when Juliet admits to herself that she loves Dawsey, there’s another woman named Remy who unfortunately seems to have his attention. But one day, she realizes during a conversation with her unknowingly helpful friend Isola Pribby that maybe she’s mistaken there, so she takes a chance. 

[Excerpt taken from a section of the book containing Isola Pribby’s “detective notes,” so Isola is the narrator] 

Dawsey said, “Hello Juliet.” He was on top of the big stepladder. I found that out later when he made so much noise coming down it. 
Juliet said she would like a word with Dawsey, if the gentlemen could give her a minute. 
They said certainly, and left the room. Dawsey said, “Is something wrong, Juliet? Is Kit alright?” 
“Kit’s fine. It’s me – I want to ask you something.” 
Oh, I thought, she’s going to tell him not to be a sissy. Tell him he must stir himself up and go propose to Remy at once. 
But she didn’t. What she said was, “Would you like to marry me?” 
I liked to die where I stood. 
There was quiet – complete quiet. Nothing! And on and on it went, not a word, not a sound. 
But, Juliet went on undisturbed. Her voice steady – and me, I could not get so much as a breath of air into my chest. “I’m in love with you, so I thought I’d ask.” 
And then, Dawsey, dear Dawsey, swore. He took the Lord’s name in vain. “My God, yes,” he cried, and clattered down that stepladder, only his heels hit the rungs, which is how he sprained his ankle. 

Awesome. Just awesome. And even though Isola did the right thing by not spying further, we readers have a pretty good idea of what happens once Dawsey’s down the ladder. 

A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley 

-Hugh MacPherson and Mary Dundas- 

I’ve been working through Susanna Kearsley’s entire backlist this year, and A Desperate Fortune has been one of my favorites from her. Like many of her books, the historical plot focuses on Scotland’s Jacobite revolutionaries, and a faulty plan to protect a Jacobite exile brings our heroine, Mary Dundas, across France and eventually to Rome. From the beginning of her adventure, a hardened Scottish Highlander named Hugh MacPherson acts as guide and protector. Mary is terrified of him at first, but almost without realizing it, she finds herself slowly warming to this enigma of a man. He has many secrets and says very little, but his courage, dependability, quiet watchfulness, and constant nearness endear him to Mary overtime. 

The two of them slowly find a tender connection over fairytales, for Mary has a gift for creating stories based on old legends, and she tells many of them during the journey. When their course ends in Rome and Hugh must continue to Spain alone, Mary realizes that she now dearly wishes she could create a different story for herself like she does for imaginary characters. But one night on a quiet bridge in the middle of Rome, Hugh lets her do just that with this heart-stopping proposal that’s wrapped in a fairytale they both know from earlier in their adventure. 

As she told the tale over again to him, Mary could not keep from noticing all the small points of connection to how things had happened with them in real life – from the earliest part where the hero had gazed upon his lady and followed her without her ever noticing him in return, to their first meeting when the hero's lady had dropped her scarf and he'd returned it, to the time when he had kissed her and her world had been forever changed, until Fate cast a pall upon their happiness and forced him to decide between remaining with his lady or returning to the battlefield.
She stopped the story there, because she found it struck too close to home
“You do not like the ending,” she reminded him. “You told me so yourself.” 
He turned his head towards her then, his face so far in shadow now she scarce could see his eyes. “Then write a different one.” 
Mary was not sure at first that she understood what he was asking. 
Until quietly he told her, “Write a better one.”
…Hope – a tiny twisted knot of it – began to loosen and expand within her. She remembered what she’d written in her journal so despondently that morning: If it were my choice to make I would lay all my heart before him and refuse to leave his side. And he was making it her choice…… 
… “Then he told her,” Mary said, “that he must leave, for he could not neglect his duty nor his honor. And his lady sighed with sadness, but she understood, and said to him, ‘Your honor and your duty are so very much a part of you I could not ever ask you to abandon them, but neither do I think I can endure it, sir, if you abandon me. So what to do?’” She could not hold Hugh’s gaze although she could not truly see it, so she looked away again, repeating, “What to do?” 
A night bird in the trees along the river’s edge began to trill, and Mary drew her strength from it. 
“And so it happened," she went on, “a fairy of the nearby forest heard the lady’s mournful speech, and being deeply moved by it, the fairy turned the lady to a falcon that could ride into the battle on her true love’s hand, and so they rode away together and had many fine adventures, and he carried her forever with him and she spent her life content, for she had wings to spread and fly with and the man she loved to hold and keep her safe.” 
There was no sound or movement for long moments but the rushing of the river and the night bird calling. 
And then Hugh asked, “What adventures did they have?” 
She found it difficult, with all of the emotions of her speech to make a calm reply. “I do not know.” 
He thought this over. “Then ye’d better come to Spain,” he said, “and live them for yourself.” 
She turned to look at him, and saw that he was straightening to stand at his full height before her in the semidarkness, and the faint light from the windows of the little island at her back showed her his steady gaze was serious. 
Her heart became a trembling thing within her as she straightened too and faced him, and the night air grew alive between them, though she could no more have guessed his thoughts than she had done when they’d first faced each other in the Paris street. Except his eyes now were not cold, she thought. Not cold at all, and no longer impenetrable. 
“Marry me,” he said. 
She had to smile at his tone, for it could not be helped. “That’s not a question.” 
“No,” he said, and bent his head towards her. “It is not.” 
And then her smile was covered by his kiss and Mary, wrapped within the warmth of it, could care for nothing else. 
Let currents flow and kingdoms fall and time move onward, Mary thought – this moment was for them. Those people of an age to come who stood upon this bridge would never know how long she’d stood tonight in Hugh’s strong arms, or what he’d said to her, the quiet simple words that had been spoken from his heart and were for her alone; nor would they know what she had answered back, and how he’d smiled and gently tipped her chin up with his hand to kiss her longer and more deeply; nor how he had finally held his hand to her outstretched and she had taken it with happiness and followed him. 

I can’t remember how long I sat still and processed this one while grinning like an imbecile, but I know it was a while. At the beginning of A Desperate Fortune, I never would have thought Hugh capable of the gentleness, emotional intelligence, or deep care he displays in these closing moments of the story. He develops so gradually that it’s nearly imperceptible, but oh, what hidden depths lie beneath his sheer physical strength and war-roughened persona. Fortunately for hopelessly romantic readers like me, he let Mary into those depths by the end. 

Poldark #7: The Angry Tide by Winston Graham 

-Drake Carne and Morwenna Chynoweth Whitworth-

These two have my heart. What a long and difficult road it’s been for them when we finally reach this gorgeous proposal, but gorgeous it is, and it’s made so much sweeter because of the trials Drake and Morwenna have endured. By this point in the story, Drake and Morwenna have been kept apart for years by seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Morwenna was forced into a “suitable” marriage with the socially respectable, but privately monstrous, Reverend Osborne Whitworth. His incessant abuse nearly destroys Morwenna emotionally, so after Osborne’s sudden death, she pushes Drake away, saying she is now tainted and damaged. But oh, dear, dear Drake. I don’t think there’s a more gentle or sensitive soul in the whole Poldark series. His tender persistence and love become lifelines for Morwenna, and we have a precious glimpse of how he will love her back to life in this beautiful exchange below.

But first, here's a nice Drake and Morwenna appreciation picture from Series 4 of the BBC Poldark adaptation. Harry Richardson and Ellise Chappell are gems in the roles. Photo edit credit to my pal @drorwenna on Instagram ;) 

[From The Angry Tide]

“But now… Will you not marry me, Morwenna?” 
She shook her head, not looking at him. “I can’t, Drake……There’s so little I can give you.” 
“You can give me yourself. That’s all I want.” 
“That’s just what I can’t do.” 
“Why not, my love?” 
“Drake, you haven’t understood. Because I am still – contaminated – in my mind. I can’t look on – on love – on what marriage means – without revulsion. If you were to kiss me now I might not shiver, for other people have kissed me. It could be just – a salute. But if you were to touch my body I would shrink away because instantly, across my mind would come the thought of his hands…” 
… “He stood up, but not over her, keeping his distance. ‘Morwenna, I must tell you that just before he – Mr. Whitworth – died I had engaged to marry a girl in Sawle called Rosina Hoblyn. I’d thought that you were lost to me for ever. Kind friends thought my life was being wasted, lost. So twas. So I engaged to marry Rosina. But when I heard he was dead, I went to see Rosina and asked her to set me free… …But when you turned me away I didn’t go back to Rosina – even if she’d have had me. I resolved never to marry ‘tall. I told my sister – she was here, today – I told her only today that I should never marry ‘tall. And that is the honest truth, without a word of a lie! So… …Would it not be better to marry me than to see me have no wife – all my days?” 
She put her free hand to her mouth. “Drake, you still don’t understand.” 
“Oh, yes, I reckon I do.” He moved to sit on his haunches in front of her, but checked himself in time. He crouched some way away. ‘Be my wife in name – marry me – in church proper – that’s all I ask. Love – what you call love – carnal love – if it d’come some day it come. If not, not. I shall not press. Twill be for you always to say.” 
She released her mouth long enough to say: “I couldn’t ask it. It wouldn’t be fair on you. You love me! I know that. So how could you – how could you keep a promise it wouldn’t be fair to ask you to make?” 
“When I make a promise I make it. Don’t you love me enough to believe that?” 
She shook her head. 
“Look,” he said, “why have you come here today?” 
She stared at him. 
He said patiently, “Was it not because ye wanted to see me?” 
She nodded. 
He said: “There’s more to life than carnal love, isn’t there?” 
“Yes…oh, yes, but –” 
“Be honest. Do you not really want to be with me? With me more than anyone else in the world?” 
She hesitated a long moment, then nodded again. 
“But –” 
“Then be that not the most important thing of all? Being together. Working together. Talking together. Walking together. There’s so much to love – even if it be not the love you mean. The sunrise, and the rain and the wind and the cloud, and the roaring of the sea and the cry of birds and the – the lowing of cows and the glow of corn and the smells of spring. And food and fresh water. New-laid eggs, warm milk, fresh-dug potatoes, home-made jams. Wood smoke, a baby robin, bluebells, a warm fire…I could go on and on and on. But if you enjoy them wi’ the one you love, then it is enjoyment fourfold! D’you not think I would not give all my life to see ye sitting in that chair? What is life if you live it alone?” 

Drake Carne – hardworking blacksmith, free spirit, eloquent speech-making extraordinaire, and the most patient and pure and tenderhearted man of the Poldark saga. Be still my heart. 

Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery

-Gilbert Blythe and Anne Shirley- 

Oh, Anne and Gil. This famous, slow-burning romance of classic literature takes readers through a whole range of emotions for the first three books of the Anne series. It’s at the end of the third volume that they’re finally engaged, to everyone’s endless relief and PURE JOY. Gilbert had been head over heels for Anne since they were kids, but he had to wait and wait and wait for her to come to her senses. He served her, encouraged her, laughed with her, advised her, studied with her, and much more throughout their teen and college years. It took a few more years, a first proposal from him that Anne foolishly rejected, some heartbreak for Anne, and a bout of scarlet fever for Gilbert for Anne to finally admit the truth to herself. She had always loved Gilbert. But would he try again with her after so long? Happily for her and for all of us readers, yes, he would. 

“I think,” said Anne softly, “that ‘the land where dreams come true’ is in the blue haze yonder, over that little valley.” 
“Have you any unfulfilled dreams, Anne?” asked Gilbert. 
Something in his tone – something she had not heard since that miserable evening in the orchard at Patty’s Place – made Anne’s heart beat wildly. But she made answer lightly. 
“Of course. Everybody has. It wouldn’t do for us to have all our dreams fulfilled. We would be as good as dead if we had nothing left to dream about. What a delicious aroma that low-descending sun is extracting from the asters and ferns. I wish we could see perfumes as well as smell them. I’m sure they would be very beautiful.” 
Gilbert was not to be thus sidetracked. 
“I have a dream,” he said slowly. “I persist in dreaming it, although it has often seemed to me that it could never come true. I dream of a home with a hearth-fire in it, a cat and dog, the footsteps of friends – and you!” 
Anne wanted to speak but she could find no words. Happiness was breaking over her like a wave. It almost frightened her. 
“I asked you a question over two years ago, Anne. If I ask it again today will you give me a different answer?” 
Still Anne could not speak. But she lifted her eyes, shining with all the love-rapture of countless generations, and looked into his for a moment. He wanted no other answer. 
They lingered in the old garden until twilight……There was so much to talk over and recall – things said and done and heard and thought and felt and misunderstood. 
“I thought you loved Christine Stuart,” Anne told him, as reproachfully as if she had not given him every reason to suppose she loved Roy Gardner. 
Gilbert laughed boyishly. 
“Christine was engaged to somebody in her home town. I knew it and she knew I knew it. When her brother graduated he told me his sister was coming to Kingsport the next winter to take music, and asked me if I would look after her a bit, as she knew no one and would be very lonely. So I did……I knew college gossip credited us with being in love with each other. I didn’t care. Nothing mattered much to me for a time there, after you told me you could never love me, Anne. There was nobody else – there never could be anybody else for me but you. I’ve loved you ever since that day you broke your slate over my head in school.” 
“I don’t see how you could keep on loving me when I was such a little fool,” said Anne. 
“Well, I tried to stop,” said Gilbert frankly, “not because I thought you what you call yourself, but because I felt sure there was no chance for me after Gardner came on the scene. But I couldn’t – and I can’t tell you, either, what it’s meant to me these two years to believe you were going to marry him……I believed it until one blessed day when I was sitting up after the fever. I got a letter from Phil Gordon – Phil Blake, rather – in which she told me there was really nothing between you and Roy, and advised me to ‘try again.’ Well, the doctor was amazed at my rapid recovery after that.
Anne laughed – then shivered. 
“I can never forget the night I thought you were dying, Gilbert. Oh, I knew – I knew then – and I thought it was too late.” 
“But it wasn’t, sweetheart. Oh, Anne, this makes up for everything, doesn’t it? Let’s resolve to keep this day sacred to perfect beauty all our lives for the gift it has given us……But I’ll have to ask you to wait a long time, Anne,” said Gilbert sadly. “It will be three years before I’ll finish my medical course. And even then there will be no diamond sunbursts or marble halls.” 
Anne laughed. 
“I don’t want sunbursts and marble halls. I just want you.” 

I think we all know that these two couldn’t be any happier together if they had all the diamond sunbursts and marble halls that even Anne could dream up. 

And there we are. Those are my favorite proposals from literature, at least for today. What are yours? I’d love to hear in comments!

You Might Also Like